Byline Investigates Big News Part 17: News of the World hacked Army Intelligence Secrets in Pursuit of Story, Jeopardised Front Line Agents

By Graham Johnson

Editor, Byline Investigates

RUPERT Murdoch’s leading tabloid compromised key figures in Britain’s war against dissident republican terrorism by hacking an Army secret agent’s computers, the High Court in London has heard.

The News of the World planted Trojan spyware into the computers of former intelligence officer Ian Hurst while seeking information about the man called ‘Stakeknife’ – the UK’s most important double agent within the Real IRA.

In doing so, Mr Hurst’s lawyers revealed, it accessed the identities of people critical to ending The Troubles, which claimed the lives of some 3,700 people over 30 years of violence.

“The reckless behaviour of the journalist involved in computer hacking undermines the security of the brave people who helped win the war against the IRA”

intelligence expert Frank Ledwidge

Barrister Jeremy Reed told the court in a statement: “Mr Hurst regularly engaged in sensitive and confidential and in some cases, privileged, correspondence by e-mail with a variety of people. 

“These included his solicitors at the time; members of the Irish Republican movement; people within the security services; members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland; and former members of the armed forces who had infiltrated the IRA, including individuals in the police witness protection programme, resulting from their inclusion near the top of the Real IRA’s hit-list.”

Freddie Scappaticci (inset as a younger man during The Troubless
Freddie Scappaticci (inset as a younger man during The Troubles)

News Group Newspapers – which published the paper until it closed amid another hacking scandal in 2011 after 168 years in print – apologised to Mr Hurst on Friday and agreed to pay substantial undisclosed damages and legal costs.

Veteran News of the World Executive Editor Alex Marunchak allegedly ordered the computer hacking to find out the identity and location of an infamous ex-IRA informer known as Freddie Scappaticci.

Ex-Force Research Unit officer Mr Hurst had been Scappaticci’s handler during the 1980s, at the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Scappaticci was a trusted member of the IRA but had agreed to spy for the British, risking his life. Following the mission, Scappaticci was put on a witness protection scheme by the British authorities, living under a false name in a secret location.

Handler: Ian Hurst today, and left pictured during The Troubles
Handler: Ian Hurst today, and left pictured during The Troubles

But Hurst remained in contact with the spy, codenamed Stakeknife – prompting Marunchak, who’d taken over as Irish Editor of The News of The World, to illegally look for clues on the retired soldier’s computer.

Mr Reed said: “In 2006, a private investigator targeted the claimant (Ian Hurst) by covert means. The investigator was Jonathan Rees of Southern Investigations, who in turn instructed Philip Smith (also known as Philip Campbell-Smith) known to some for his expertise in computer hacking and e-mail interception.

“Having been tasked with locating the whereabouts of Freddie Scappaticci, the investigators set about attempting to obtain information about Mr Scappaticci from Mr Hurst.

“The primary means of doing so was for Mr Smith to infect the personal computers used by Mr Hurst with spying software called e-Blaster.

“That spyware successfully infiltrated Mr Hurst’s computers and was live for a period of three months before it self-deleted as it was programmed to do so. E-blaster also infected the personal computer used by Mr Hurst’s wife and daughter.

“That spyware enabled Mr Smith to monitor Mr Hurst’s computers for information about Mr Scappaticci, including by intercepting Mr Hurst’s emails.

“It also enabled Mr Smith to intercept the communications of Mr Hurst’s family.

Hack instruction: Jonathan Rees, formerly of Southern Investigations
Hack instruction: Jonathan Rees, formerly of Southern Investigations

“The full extent of the computer interception is unknown, but given the functionality of e-Blaster the interception activities by Mr Smith might have included intercepting or accessing other personal correspondence sent from, received on, or drafted on the Hurst’s computers; accessing all documents stored on their computers; accessing browser histories; and logging account usernames and passwords.”

Even after the virus had self-destructed the hacking continued because Smith had copied Mr.Hurst’s passwords using a technique called keylogging.

This method enabled the hacker to track Mr Hurst’s keyboard when he typed in his passwords.

Mr Reed continued: “It is known that Mr Smith obtained Mr Hurst’s webmail passwords. This is likely to have been obtained using the keylogger functionality of e-Blaster.

“The knowledge of this password would have enabled Mr Smith to continue accessing Mr Hurst’s emails after the three-month e-Blaster infection period had ended, since Mr Hurst did not know that his system had been compromised and did not, at that time, change his email password. Mr Hurst does not know when Mr Smith finally ceased intercepting his emails.”

Judge Mr Justice Mann heard how hacked secrets were passed up the chain of command back to The News of The World. The hacker found out Hurst’s address information, which could have been used by the IRA.

Hurst said he felt “humiliated” after finding out that the safety of his contacts in the police and security services were put at risk.

Mr Reed added: “It is known that Mr Smith successfully intercepted Mr Hurst’s emails.

“When information of note was obtained from Mr Hurst’s emails or computers, it was passed by Mr Smith to Mr Rees. An example of this is when Mr Smith emailed Mr Rees on 26th August 2006 stating this his ‘facility’ had picked up Mr Hurst’s wife sending out her CV which contained their address and telephone details.

“In turn, Mr Rees sent some of this intercepted information to News Group Newspapers.”

Critic: Intelligence expert Frank Ledwidge
Critic: Intelligence expert Frank Ledwidge

Last night a former Military Intelligence officer condemned the News of the World for hacking into the emails of a secret British Army operative.

Frank Ledwidge, who served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq over 15 years, said the journalists were “reckless” and “dangerous”.

The expert analyst said: “The war in Northern Ireland was won to a great degree by the courage and skill of Military Intelligence officers. It’s fair to say that they saved hundreds of lives during the conflict.

“The reckless behaviour of the journalist involved in computer hacking undermines the security of the brave people who helped win the war against the IRA between the 1970s and 1990s. But as Mr Hurst rightly points out, it puts their safety at risk today, too.”

The case has caused News Group Newspapers, which positions itself as supporting British troops, much embarrassment.

Mr Ledwidge, author of the book Losing Small Wars, worked in a similar role to Mr Hurst – running sources in warzones, whilst collecting and analysing sensitive information for Army commanders in the field.

He added: “Computer hacking a Military Intelligence officer has long-term consequences for wider security.

“It was not only dangerous for Mr Hurst in 2006 but it also undermines our security today.

“Because it makes it harder to recruit agents now, if there is slightest doubt that their identity and security will be compromised whilst they are active and afterwards.

“It’s dangerous – and senior journalists, with the slightest awareness of how security works should know better. You can compromise the security of an ex-officer and his network by hacking his emails.”

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